by David W. Berner, Author of Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed
The poet, Billy Collins, once said, “My poetry is suburban, it’s domestic, it’s middle class, and it’s sort of unashamedly that, but I hope there’s enough imaginative play in there that it’s not simply poems about barbecuing.” Collins was acknowledging, even celebrating, the accessibility of his writing and how it is perfectly okay with him, and apparently his readers, that what he has to say in his poetry would never be labeled fantastical. His wonderfully placed words rarely take on the kind of subject matter tackled by so many memoirs: the incredible odyssey of climbing the Himalayas, the emotions of living in a war zone, the raw reality of beating the incredible odds of a devastating disease, or the brave struggles of living through domestic violence. Instead, you might say Collins writes with John Updike’s words ringing in his head. On one occasion, Updike said it was his duty “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”
So many times during the writing workshops, seminars, or the undergraduate classes I teach, students will dismiss their personal stories, saying, “I haven’t lived a fascinating enough life. Why would anyone want to read my story?” And my answer is always the same: personal stories, memoir, personal documentary does not have to be about the fantastical. It can be about anything that has warmed your heart, shaken your soul, changed your point-of-view, or forced you to rethink your loves, your hates, your relationships, your career, and your life as you know it. Good memoir is not about what happens, but how well the writer reflects on what has happened. All of us who have written or simply read personal stories know that the ones that resonate the most are those that reflect with great insight on our shared human condition. It’s not about the facts of a story, it’s how the writer is able to step away, observe those facts, and interpret what it all means.
Phillip Lopate’s wonderful personal essay “Confessions of a Shusher” is a superb example of a story, a memoir-esque narrative, which takes on a seemingly unexciting subject. Lopate believes it is his obligation to be, “a self-appointed sergeant-at-arms who tells noisemakers in the theater to be quiet.” This is what he writes about. That’s it. Plain and simple. Nothing fantastical. Still, in this essay, Lopate builds undeniable tension, as a good story should, and astutely reflects on what he insists is his sense of duty as a shusher. What does this practice say about the writer? What does it say about society? Why is he on a mission to change people’s behavior? What does being a shusher say about all of us? Answering, or at least trying to answer these questions is the essence of the piece, and that is what makes it engaging, even compelling, even though it has nothing to do with death, tragedy, disease, or war.
When you take on your personal stories, think about Phillip Lopate, think about Billy Collins and John Updike, and remember that a memoirist’s subject matter is not as important as how the writer reflects on that subject matter, how he reveals and shares the moments of humanity.
About the Author:
David W. Berner is the author of Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed. He is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, a writer of personal essays, a journalist, and broadcaster, and regularly conducts workshops on writing. This summer (2011) David will be the Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Refreshing and informative. Thanks for validating that all of us have great stories to tell and it’s our reflection on subject matter that makes our stories worth reading.
B. Lynn Goodwin
Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers
David, I love what you say here: “Good memoir is not about what happens, but how well the writer reflects on what has happened. All of us who have written or simply read personal stories know that the ones that resonate the most are those that reflect with great insight on our shared human condition. It’s not about the facts of a story, it’s how the writer is able to step away, observe those facts, and interpret what it all means.”
Your article speaks to that whispering voice that so many memoirists have–that they need to come up with some really horrific stuff to have a “good” memoir. Yet how lovely it is to enter someone’s life, garden, kitchen, and daily thoughts, and in those specifics, find the universal truths there. Discovering others’ lives, the hidden inner world behind closed doors, helps us to appreciate the daily blessings of living on this planet, of being human.
Thank you for your article, and I look forward to reading your book.
How timely. I’ve been struggling with the mundane life I’ve lived and is there really fodder for writing. Not the life, but rather the level of reflection that seems to be the issue. Thanks for an alternative thought at just the right time.